2021 AARP-UN Briefing Series: Executive Summary

2021 AARP UN Briefing Series: recorded Webinar

AARP hosted its 14th annual briefing series, Digital Technologies and Older Persons: A Smart Mix, during the 59th session of the Commission for Social Development. Watch the recorded webcast  from this event, which focused on how to move towards a socially just transition promoting sustainable development and highlighted the role of digital technologies on social development and well-being.

      Highlevel Takeaways

         1. Digital technologies are a powerful tool for reducing disparities and increasing inclusion.

         2. We need to have global connectivity by 2030.

  3. To participate in the economic, political, cultural, and social life of society, access to digital technology is crucial. Modern technologies can help facilitate an older person’s participation in decision-making processes and public consultation through means such as online polls and surveys. Government surveys, for example, are primarily available online.  Older persons need to be empowered to use technologies, while also having alternatives to access public services.

4. Digital inclusion is foundational for social and societal equity, which has been brought to light during the Covid-19 pandemic.

5. The WHO estimates that by 2050 there will be more than 2 billion seniors over 60 years of age, which is three times more than in 2000. This creates a large consumer group, creating incentives for businesses to consider the needs of older persons.

6. A human rights approach can create the ecosystem of bringing governments, companies, and NGOs together to set up a policy framework and create incentives for finding solutions to close the gap created by the digital divide. There needs to be a paradigm shift from seeing older persons as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to seeing their inclusion as an economic opportunity.

7. It’s important that older people are visible in conversations such as the UN Briefing series.


Many countries are witnessing incremental progress towards an age-inclusive workforce as healthy longevity becomes a global megatrend. Since the start of the global pandemic, AARP has worked closely with the United Nations to cushion the pandemic's effects on progress made towards a more inclusive work environment for older people. During this effort, a central challenge has become apparent: There is a critical need for everyone to have access to the technological tools that touch every aspect of our lives. Providing this access will promote greater equity and inclusion by meaningfully reducing disparities around race and other sociodemographic factors, while also working to enhance the protection of the rights of older individuals.

Peter Rundlet, Vice President of AARP International, delivered the welcome remarks, acknowledging all speakers and commending the organizers for a well-organized virtual event. Rundlet emphasized AARP’s dedication to work towards ensuring digital inclusion for all, including the most vulnerable. He thanked Ambassador Juan Sandoval Mendiolea, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations since February 2015, for being a part of the event. Mexico led the 2019 roundtable discussion for digital inclusion. Rundlet also mentioned the fireside chat that took place in late September in recognition of the International Day of Older Persons. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet sat down for a conversation with AARP’s Chief Public Policy Officer Debra Whitman to discuss the significant impact of Covid-19 on the rights of older persons. The women discussed that, to capture the power of digital technologies, we need to focus on the broader ecosystems that enable digital technologies to be used in an inclusive manner. We have a genuine opportunity in front of us. Just as digital divides reflect and amplify existing social, cultural, and economic inequalities, we can employ digital technology as a powerful tool to reduce disparities and increase inclusion. By working for greater digital access and inclusive design for older persons, we can simultaneously work to increase access for younger people, people with disabilities, women, indigenous people, and many others to foster their social inclusion and participation.

Elliott Harris, Assistant Secretary General of the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs and Chief Economist at UNDESA,  emphasized that almost one year after the outbreak of Covid-19 and its rapid spread across the globe, the pandemic is having a dramatic impact on social development, threatening to reverse decades of progress in the fight against poverty, and exacerbating already high levels of inequality.  Harris explained that the UN Briefing Series provides member states with a platform to rethink existing socioeconomic policy frameworks and closely examine the key role that digital technologies can and should play. On the verge of a fourth industrial revolution characterized by rapid digital innovation, this will affect all sectors of society—the way we live, work, and relate to each other. Older persons experience the downside of the digital divide to a greater extent than others in society. They often do not benefit fully from the opportunities provided by technological progress. The dangers of gender- or race-based discrimination and bias in the use of artificial intelligence have been well researched and documented. But little comparable information and analysis exists in regard to older persons. We need to know what biases against older persons already exist in artificial intelligence. We need to understand better how such biases compound the pervasive effects of age discrimination in our societies, how they exacerbate the exclusion of older people and the negative effects of the digital divide. We also need to guard against and prevent new biases that could shape a system that discriminates against older persons.

Claudia Mahler, the keynote speaker and Independent Expert of the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, suggested a human rights approach as a framework for working towards digital inclusion, access to infrastructure, and the development of new technologies. She emphasized that the pandemic has accelerated the use of online and mobile services. Access to digital means determines who is connected, employed, educated, as well as safe and healthy. Older persons in particular must have equal, practical access to information, which is especially important in emergencies as most information during the pandemic is available online. Not having access to this information can negatively impact health and lead to exclusion and marginalization. Mahler examined the duality of opportunity versus risk. She mentioned the lack of data about older persons’ lived realities exposed by the pandemic. As new data is gathered, the risk of overlooking the less digitally visible in vulnerable situations persists. Additional challenges are online ageism and discrimination primarily targeted towards older persons. Suggested solutions include the regulation of user-generated online content. Companies should apply human rights standards at all stages of their operations, such as rigorous human rights impact assessment for product and policy development, ongoing assessment throughout the operations, and meaningful consultations and engagements with civil society and the public, including older persons. In addition, digital technologies play an essential role in being able to participate in political, economic, social, and cultural life. For instance, they can facilitate older persons’ participation in decision-making and public consultations, such as online polls and surveys. With the digitalization of government services advancing in many places, there also has been a breakdown of regular communication channels and networks due to lockdowns, physical distancing measures, and older persons needing to be empowered to use digital technology by also having the possibility and the awareness of alternative ways to access public services. This is especially important in cases when older persons need support or help because of abuse or neglect. Digital and assistive technologies have a great potential to increase the ability of older persons to live independently and autonomously, and to fully exercise their human rights. It could notably bring cost-effective and efficient solutions to increase demand for care and need for individualized support for other persons. That said, the design and use of such technologies needs to be thoroughly assessed from a human rights perspective, ensuring that the technology does not stigmatize older persons and takes account of the diverse needs and preferences

Erica Dhar, Director of Global Advocacy/Alliance at AARP International, set the stage for the panel discussion by introducing the panelists.

Raj Kumar, President & Editor-In-Chief at DEVEX, moderated the discussion, introducing the first question by acknowledging that, while we initially thought the pandemic would be an equalizer, quite the opposite occurred. Inequalities became much more apparent and visible. Kumar pointed out the need to approach these inequalities and posed the question: Why focus on this specific issue [digital inclusion of older persons] as we get past the Covid-19 era?

Ambassador Juan Sandoval Mendiolea, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations, responded to the question by stressing that access to technology can have profound implications. For example, it can determine whether older people can register to get vaccinated or not. Additionally, social distancing can be challenging for older people already experiencing a level of loneliness. They might lack the skills necessary to access digital platforms that foster social connection or are prevented from entering the labor market due to a lack of necessary digital skills. While the use of these platforms has reason to continue, older persons usually lack access to the skills needed to use the platforms, especially in developing countries. In 2019, Mexico launched a program, Internet for All, established by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), which aims to cover 92.2 percent of the Mexican population by the end of 2021. The initiative promotes inclusion of all sectors of the population, including, older persons. Additionally, the National Institute for Older Persons in Mexico offers computer and internet training nationwide to bring them closer to the new technologies, increasing their chances of being able to communicate and enter the labor market. Through the National Policy of Social Inclusion, the government has created digital inclusion centers, which promote the development of digital skills and competencies either in person, virtually, or as a hybrid model.

Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President, AARP Research, and member of the panel, added that the technologies developed now will be used in the future and will become more normative. She pointed out that we are at a pivotal inflection point, as development might have accelerated through the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic resulted in, but also exacerbated, significant issues around social isolation for older adults in long-term care-facilities and hospitals, but also in families. It also brought to the fore issues around health, telehealth, and access, both within hospitals or long-term care facilities and in homes. Additional challenges are the difficulties in areas of employment, where older persons seem too often to be the last hired and first fired due to ageism and perceptions of how they engage with technology. Bryant emphasized that digital inclusion is foundational for social and societal equity, which has been brought to light during the pandemic. In addressing these challenges, AARP is taking a holistic approach towards issues of policy and infrastructure on a national as well as a global level. In this process, a clear definition of the consumer perspective (i.e., a clearly defined age group, an outlining of circumstances, and main focus) are necessary. Only then can improvements on inclusive design, the creation of design principles, and the convincing of the industry to implement them be executed. A successful example is universal design in housing.

The marketing of technology to older persons plays a significant role as well. Only five percent of media releases published by companies and organizations show older consumers with technologies, and most of those images are not positive—They portray older adults receiving support in navigating technological resources. AARP works on changing this conversation by developing strategies and looking for partners with whom to strategize. Within these efforts, it is critical to employ a human rights approach as an underpinning for the ecosystem conversation about bringing industries, governments, and NGOs together to have a more global conversation.

Timea Suto, Knowledge Manager at Innovation for All & BASIS at the International Chamber of Commerce, Business Action for Support, the Information Society, presented recent data. For years, business has advocated for the potential of digital technologies to act as catalysts for auxiliary implementation of shared development goals like UN SDGs. She emphasized that, up until 2020, the gap of the digital divide narrowed. While in 2010, the gap was 70 percent of 60-69 year olds, compared to the average population, it was less than 20 percent in 2020. (The gap is based on self-reported use of technology.) Digital division started increasing again after the start of the pandemic. However, that does not mean that there is a decrease in technology use—just that younger people increased their use multifold. Suto added that technology is not only a problem, but also an enhancer of problems to which it is the solution, which is why digital equity as an ecosystem needs a holistic approach to address the issues of policy, infrastructure, consumer perspective, and digital literacy.

Before concluding the discussion, panelists addressed other important issues. For the accelerated digital transformation to be successful, people need to be online. Currently, 3.7 billion people are still unconnected, mostly in developing countries and rural areas. Connecting everyone is crucial, and governments and the private sector need to be incentivized to invest in this effort.

Malcolm Johnson, the Deputy Secretary-General at International Telecommunication Union, brought the session to a close by thanking the panelists and moderator for an excellent and engaging conversation. He concluded the session by saying that collaboration is critical to finding innovative solutions and bringing everybody online, independent of race, gender, skills, or ability. In a rapidly aging world, stakeholders need to work together to empower older persons globally to use technologies. Then, ITU has got to deliver the statistics on the use of ICTs on a geographic basis, also distinguishing between young and old, and men and women. These statistics are very important for policymakers to help progress the infrastructure, literacy, affordability, and the quality and reliability of access. Tackling this big challenge will require several innovative approaches. So, we all need to work together. Collaboration is key. We must bring everyone online regardless of age, gender, location, and financial means.

AARP UN Briefing 2021 - Co-Sponsors